A MORNING AT THE BONNIE DELL RANCH
By; Dale (Ketcham) Day
I don’t need an alarm clock to wake me. The big Rhode Island Red rooster is on the roof of the stables and tells the world the sun is near to rising. I chuckle as the Bantam rooster on the rail fence surrounding the corral tries his mightiest to emulate the big guy. The bunkhouse is still dark but I know it’s time to get up. This is my week to milk the cows.
The rug beside my bed is cool from the cement floor under it. I move carefully so as not to awaken Wayne in the bunk above me, taking my toilet kit from the wall locker before going into the latrine. I usually shower when I first get up but will wait this time until after I’ve finished my chores.
Light blue eyes look back at me from the mirror and I run my hand through my sandy red crew cut. As close as I look, there’s still nothing on my cheeks or chin that needs a razor blade.
The old pair of Levis is faded and worn but clean. Mom Lunt always ensures we have clean clothes. I pick the red flannel, long-sleeved shirt and don it before slipping my feet into my work boots. As I walk to the door, I notice Ralph watching me. We exchange smiles before he rolls back over to get another half hour of sleep.
The sweet aroma of fresh mown alfalfa fills my nostrils as I savor the dewy morning breeze. A few fluffy clouds off to the west reflect sunlight from just beyond the high hills between the ranch and Redlands. A pair of Red Tailed Hawks circle high overhead, sharp eyes seeking field mice feeding in the pasture behind the barn. I can even see a couple of Cottontail rabbits there, ears up to hear the first signal of danger.
The gravel crunches underfoot as I walk across to the stables. I slip the stick from the hasp and open the door to the milk room. The two shiny stainless steel milking pails are in their place and I take them with me as I go to the next stall to fill a canvas bag with oats. As I walk around the stables, I see Mom Lunt in the chicken coop gathering eggs from the various nests.
“Good morning!” she cheerfully calls out. I can’t remember any time when she wasn’t cheerful.
I return her greeting and enter the corral. Tom, the big gelding, stares placidly at me before turning back to munch on a bit of hay. The mare [I cannot, for the life of me, remember her name] ignores me. She’s busy searching the stalls in the side of the barn for something to eat. One of the other boys will be along soon to fork hay for them.
It’s no surprise to find both milk cows waiting. I hang the milk pails up on a peg before walking behind the stanchions. I spill half of the oats into each trough and slide back the wooden bar. I pull back my hand to keep the Jersey from nibbling on it. She’s always more eager than the Holstein. The next thing is to fill the bent up bucket with water and go around to rinse off the udders of both animals. Finally, I take down the milking stool and settle in next to the Jersey’s right side. I rest my forehead against her warm side and go to work. Even though her udder’s full, she’s still darned hard to squeeze milk out of. It’s something like playing scales on an instrument - except she’s so hard it feels like trying to squeeze a basketball.
Of course, the cats are there. Momma had a litter of six and all of them wait patiently on their haunches. A stream of white lands near and Momma cat sports ivory whiskers while her kittens rush to lap up the milk with steam rising in the morning chill. I manage to get a little over a half pail from the Jersey before giving up.
Hanging that on its peg, I take down the other to go and milk the Holstein. She’s easy. Her udder’s about half again the size of the Jersey’s and usually fills a pail and a half. But, she had a heifer so I only fill the one, leaving the rest for her baby.
The two cows have finished eating and back out of the stanchions as soon as I opened them. The next job is to wash down the concrete before taking the pails to the milk room. A rich vapor rises from both and I look forward to breakfast.
The Jersey’s milk has a richer fat content so I put half of her milk through the hand-operated separator, pouring the cream into a large pitcher with a lid. The rest goes into another container to be mixed with the Holstein’s milk.
After taking both milk containers to the house, I return to the milk room to sterilize the pails with steam. Pop Lunt has drilled into us the rule that one always needs to clean up after doing the milking. It’s only then that I return to the bunkhouse to shower and change into my school clothes.
We all wait until Pop Lunt comes in, hangs his old Stetson on its peg and sits down at the head of the table before we take our places. I don’t remember how we worked it out but there is some kind of order in who sits where. I seem to remember that I am one place away from Mom Lunt. Pop Lunt nods to Bruce and he says grace. Then we eat.
A huge pile of scrambled eggs fresh from the coop. Rashers of bacon and slices of ham from one of the Hampshire hogs recently butchered. Home-style potatoes and two loaves of freshly baked bread. I happily use my butter knife to spread unsalted butter from our own churn and cover it with peach preserves Mom Lunt made from the two trees in our garden. And, yes, a large glass of raw milk - this from the huge fridge that I milked yesterday. I’ll drink the store-bought sterile milk for lunch at school and it won’t be anywhere as good as this!
There’s plenty for all and everybody finishes their plate. It seldom happens but anything left will go into the slop bucket to be fed to the pigs.
The other boys gather their schoolbooks. I never bring mine home as I always get my homework finished at school, either during lunch or the afternoon recess. Each of us picks up the sack lunch Mom Lunt has prepared for us. We all wear jackets, three of us the blue corduroy of the Future Farmers of America. We have plenty of time, so we make our way through the orange grove on the far side of the Southern Pacific railroad tracks. The big navel oranges are ripe for picking and the owner never begrudges us any - after all, we’re there for him any time it gets too cold and he needs someone to light his smudge pots.
Another morning at the Bonnie Dell Ranch.